DAEGU, South Korea — For 20 years, Americans — whether native-born or naturalized — proved non-factors in one of the glamour races in track and field, the 1500.
Now, though, it appears the Americans are again for real.
On Saturday night, Matthew Centrowitz, who this fall will be a fifth-year senior at the University of Oregon, won the bronze medal in the 1500 at the 2011 track and field world championships. “Taking that victory lap,” he said afterward, “I still didn’t think it was real.”
It was, and it adds to these recent performances:
Thursday: Jenny Simpson wins the women’s 1500.
2009 worlds, in Berlin: Bernard Lagat takes bronze. That race was particularly noteworthy because, of the 12 guys in the final, three were American. All three were naturalized Americans, and damn proud of it: Lagat, Lopez Lomong and Leo Manzano.
2007, in Osaka: Lagat wins. He also wins the 5000.
Before that — there was a long, long gap.
You have to go all the way back to Jim Spivey, in 1987 in Rome, who took bronze.
The two medals here mark the first time since 1983 that Americans have won medals in the men’s and women’s 1500.
The same day that Simpson won her final, Centrowitz won his semifinal.
It made him realize, he said, that he had a chance — a real chance.
Later that day, he called home and told his folks he had made the final. His dad, Matt, ran in the 1976 Summer Games and was on the 1980 U.S. team as well; he was All-American at Oregon. “He was just pumped,” Matthew said. He caught his mom, Beverly, as she was driving to work; Matthew said she cried.
In retrospect, of course he won the semifinal. The day before, as he posted to his Twitter feed, he had been in the cafeteria and Cher’s song, “Believe,” started playing: “In Korea … whats the odds of 1 of my fav songs coming on?!”
A college senior who not only listens to Cher but admits to it in a public forum — that takes a certain amount of confidence in one’s self, right?
That same guy was loose and confident in the ready room. Nick Willis, the Beijing Games 1500 silver medalist, who is now all of 28, said after the race that he was looking over at Centrowitz, 21, who was laughing and joking while waiting in that ready room, and it reminded him of a young Nick Willis: “There was no pressure.”
There were two Kenyans in the race, 2008 Olympic champ Asbel Kiprop and Silas Kiplagat. Two Moroccans. An Ethiopian. An Algerian. Willis.
In other words — the field was stacked. And Centrowitz felt zero pressure. “I think I looked at the start list for this final the least of any race I raced all year,” Centrowitz said. “I knew everyone was going to be good — so what was the point of looking at their [personal-bests], or who was in it? I knew I was going to have to come out and give a hard showing no matter what … not analyzing who was in it, just — no expectations, just having fun.”
Centrowitz’s strategy is to run from the front. “I get more excited up there. I’m more engaged,” he said, adding, “I like to stay up there,” and that was his plan in Saturday’s final as well.
Willis led the pack through the first two laps, with Centrowitz right behind.
Then the Kenyans took over. At 1200 meters Kiplagat had the lead, and Centrowitz found himself slightly behind, and boxed in.
“I mean, they went so hard with like 350 to go,” he said. Relax, he told himself. They’ll come back to you.
“Sure enough, once 200 hit, each 50 — it was just one more guy, one more guy and then I found myself in my own position, just digging down,” on the outside, coming down the stretch, crossing the line in third.
There used to be a time when having “U-S-A” on your jersey seemed to doom you in the 1500. Maybe that time is over.
“As we have seen,” Centrowitz said, “anything can happen. When you put good training in, when you stay consistent, good things happen, and that’s what I believed when I came here.”